Torn apart from their children, thousands of mothers have suffered unimaginable trauma under the Trump administration's family separation policy. For one immigrant woman, the pain of separation is just part of it: the policy may end up costing her life and that of her son.
After fleeing serial rape and torture in Honduras at the hands of a hitman who threatened to murder her family, Elvia and her son arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum. (Elvia is a pseudonym to protect her identity.) Under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, they were immediately torn apart, leaving the boy to blame his own mother for the separation. Traumatized and desperate to be reunited with her child, Elvia rushed through a crucial interview meant to help secure her asylum status—and in doing so, her attorney fears, may have doomed herself to deportation.
Elvia is a 33-year-old woman originally from a small village in northwestern Honduras, where she lived with her 10-year-old son and her 5-year-old daughter. Her story is recounted in a declaration made when she sought asylum in the United States.
About a year ago, she noticed a stranger riding in a police car with local law enforcement near the village’s soccer field, where her children were playing. Police presence in Elvia’s village already made her uncomfortable; the community is too small to have a police force of its own, and the few cops that do patrol the area are rumored to be collecting payments from local drug dealers.
“Women can always tell when someone is looking at us in a certain way,” Elvia later said in a declaration form, “and I could tell that this was how he was looking at me.”
She took enough notice to recognize the man one week later, when he approached her on the street with overtures for sex. Repelled, Elvia rejected the man’s advances, but he persisted, saying as she walked away that “even if I was not interested in him, it was still going to happen.”
Around two months later, as Elvia walked to do the family’s washing, the man drove up in a car and ordered her to get in. Noticing a gun on the dashboard, Elvia got in the car. The man drove her nearly an hour away to a motel, where he beat her and raped her at gunpoint.
“I was begging him not to do anything to me,” Elvia said, “but he told me that I was his and that anytime he wanted me, he would have me.”
“When he was driving her back to her town, she said, ‘you’re not going to get away with this,’ and he started laughing hysterically,” Elvia’s immigration attorney, Kate Chaltain, told The Daily Beast. He told her that he worked for the police, and if she tried to report him, “things will be much worse for you.”
Elvia believed that the man was a sicario, a hitman in the employ of the Honduran police, and with good reason. Crimes against women are routinely facilitated by Honduran police, according to international human rights groups, either through failure to enforce laws against domestic violence and sexual assault or by police and their affiliates committing those crimes themselves.
“Honduras is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be female, particularly because of the lack of protection for women in this situation,” Chaltain said. “There’s literally nothing that women can do to get away from them.”
The hitman raped her for several months before Elvia decided that she needed to flee with the son whose life her rapist had threatened. Leaving her daughter with her parents, Elvia traveled to a larger city to live with a family member.
One week later, the man knocked on her relative’s gate, telling Elvia: “I can find you wherever you go.”
Elvia returned to her village, at the sicario’s insistence, and the rapes continued until May, nearly nine months since the man had first ordered her into his car.
Eventually, Elvia couldn’t take it anymore.
“The only way my son and I could be safe,” she said, “was to leave Honduras.”
Elvia and her son left Honduras in May and journeyed nearly 1,500 miles for more than a month, traveling along with Elvia’s half-sister and her 12-year-old daughter. Elvia and her younger half-sister, who crossed into Texas a week before Elvia and her son, never discussed the reasons why they were fleeing Honduras, not even with their children. (Chaltain later discovered that Elvia’s sister had an almost identical story: her boyfriend, a former police officer, had assaulted and raped her on multiple occasions.)
In Mexico, Elvia and her son paid a smuggler to make the final crossing across the Rio Grande by raft on June 13, looking for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol “because I believed that they would help us if we told them we were seeking asylum,” she said.
Chaltain said it’s a common misconception—one pushed by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen—that people seeking asylum need to enter the United States at a port of entry to avoid breaking the law.
“That’s not the law, it’s a policy,” Chaltain said, one specific to the Trump administration. “It does not matter where you enter, or how you enter—if you have a fear of return, your manner of entry is excused.”
After locating two female Border Patrol officers near Hidalgo, Texas, Elvia and her son were gathered with other women and children outdoors and then put in a van destined for the Ursula detention center in McAllen, run by CBP. She was not asked if she had a visa, or if she was afraid to return to Honduras, Chaltain said.
As Elvia, her son, and the other women and children detained at the border entered Ursula, a converted injection-molding warehouse that now serves as the largest immigration processing and detention center in the nation, she was told that she and the other women would be placed in the hielera, or “icebox.” Elvia and her son immediately panicked.
Border Patrol “literally pulled their hands apart and physically separated them,” Chaltain said, a separation that extended until the next morning, when the mother and son were brought to another location. There, they were fingerprinted and photographed before being held separately in a facility within McAllen called La Perrera, or The Dog Run, because of its high chain-link fencing and mesh canopy, which resembles a dog kennel. Elvia and her son were separated into different enclosures so far apart they couldn’t see each other.
Despite its name, Chaltain told The Daily Beast, the women and children detained in La Perrera were treated more poorly than dogs.
“The guards gave us sandwiches with rotten meat and threw cookies at us like we were animals,” Elvia said. When another group of women told guards that they were thirsty, they were led to the bathroom and mockingly told to drink from the toilet.
Later that day, the women were told to line up along a wall so that they could see their children for five minutes. The children were then marched by, single-file, and told to point if they saw their mother.
“There were lots of children who could not find their mother, and lots of mothers who couldn’t find their children,” Chaltain said. Fortunately, Elvia’s son spotted her.
“They spent five minutes together, and then the guards came in and they said that all the women needed to line up,” Chaltain said. The women and children were led back to their respective cages until the next day, when the mothers were put in handcuffs and leg irons.
“We’re transferring you,” Border Patrol agents said.
“Where they’re from, only the worst criminals on earth are being shackled like this, and here they were, a group of women in front of their children,” Chaltain said. The mothers quickly became hysterical with fear that they were about to be removed from the country without their children. Through tears, they asked the Border Patrol agents where they were being taken.
They were told: “You’re not allowed to ask any questions.”
The women, forced onto a bus with no stated destination, were initially relieved when they were brought to a courthouse. Seeing a judge, they reasoned, meant that they weren’t summarily being deported, that they’d be able to see their children.
In a large room with other shackled women, Elvia was told by a public defender that, despite her asylum plea, she needed to plead guilty to illegal entry in order to leave the court. Her son in mind, Elvia pleaded guilty, as did every other woman in the courtroom that day, and was sentenced to time served. When she left, Elvia was told she would be reunited with her son at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, as would the other mothers.
When they got to Port Isabel, however, the children were nowhere in sight.
Elvia’s son had been taken to a group foster facility, seven hours away by bus.
Elvia was hysterical.
“My thoughts were consumed with the whereabouts of my son,” Elvia later said, comparing the U.S. government’s actions to those of the corrupt dictatorship in Honduras. “I do not trust the government in my country because they do not protect the people, so I did not know if [my son] was safe here”
Over the course of their 30-day separation, Elvia and her son spoke on the phone once. The phone call originated from her son’s facility, despite assurances that she would be able to reach her son from Port Isabel.
“She was given a phone number where he supposedly was,” Chaltain said, “but every time she called, the phone just rang—nobody ever answered.”
Elvia’s son raged and cried on the phone, blaming his mother for their separation, for their detention, for the month-long journey to the United States, for leaving Honduras in the first place.
Elvia, deeply ashamed of the sexual violence and assault that had driven her from her home, never told her son that his life was in danger as long as he was in Honduras. “From his perspective, this whole disaster was completely inexplicable,” Chaltain said.
If he were to be deported, there was no way for him to know how dangerous his home country would be or to plead his own case for asylum.
“He will not be able to articulate why it’s unsafe for him to go back—he doesn’t even know it’s unsafe for them to go back!” Chaltain said.
During the entire separation, Elvia never met with a lawyer, a volunteer, or anyone able to explain the asylum process. Wracked with fear and anxiety over her son’s disappearance, she had no time to even think about her own bid for asylum.
For asylum seekers like Elvia, the first step after telling a U.S. official that they cannot safely return to their home country is a “credible fear” interview. Such interviews are intended to determine whether an asylum applicant could plausibly make their case in an asylum proceeding.
The Trump administration has dismissed the interview process as easily gamed and susceptible to fraud, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling the credible fear process “an easy ticket to illegal entry,” manipulated by “dirty immigration lawyers” who encourage their clients to defraud the United States. An analysis of asylum requests data by Syracuse University recently found that hostility to the asylum process has filtered down into the courtroom, with some judges granting more than 80 percent of asylum requests, while others grant asylum in a mere 10 percent of cases.
If an asylum seeker is determined in the interview to have a credible fear of persecution or torture if they are returned to their home country, they are issued a notice to appear before an immigration judge, where the applicant will make the case for their asylum.
Almost none of this occurred in Elvia’s case.
Two weeks into her separation, Elvia was woken up, taken to an empty room, and completed her credible fear interview over the phone. She was confused, bewildered, anxious, and desperate to get the interview over with.
“She had been told by multiple people in her facility that the sooner you get the interview over, the sooner you get to see your child,” Chaltain said. “That’s a problem.”
In Elvia’s case, and many others, Chaltain said, asylum applicants with solid cases to make rushed through the interview with few details, focusing only on getting past the asylum officer to be with their child.
“It’s what any parent would be focused on,” Chaltain said.
Elvia, deeply ashamed and deeply traumatized, had never told anyone about being raped, and was anxious about telling the male asylum officer such personal details.
“She was clearly someone who was suffering from PTSD and trauma from what happened to her,” Chaltain said, trauma that was compounded by the separation from her son.
When Elvia began describing why she was afraid to return to Honduras, the interpreter cut her off, chastising her for giving too much information, she later recalled.
Elvia was told that “I needed to stop, that I was talking too much, and that it sounded like I was ‘arranging’ my answers,” she later recalled. The asylum officer, likely working through an immense backlog of cases that has made the asylum process nearly interminable even under normal circumstances, didn’t ask any follow-up questions about the threats against her son’s life, or about her rapist’s connections with the police.
Elvia was confused when she was asked whether she had been tortured—in her mind, torture was something that happened in the movies: “someone is tied up, they have their fingers chopped off.” She didn’t think that her experience, being repeatedly raped and beaten at gunpoint by an assassin-for-hire, counted.
“You have to ask questions about that, and they didn’t,” Chaltain said.
Elvia failed the interview.
When Chaltain, an immigration lawyer working pro bono with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), met Elvia, she and her son had just been reunited two days before, and were being held at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Karnes County Residential Center.
“They were not doing well at that point,” Chaltain said. “He was non-communicative, he was furious with her, wouldn’t touch her...he said she wasn’t his mother anymore.”
The relationship gradually improved, despite them having no access to the mental health care that Trump administration officials have told reporters is available to all children in detention.
“There’s been no help provided for the trauma that these people have endured, not even considering everything that they went through in her home country,” Chaltain said.
Despite that, Elvia and her son were doing “pretty well, comparatively speaking.” Numerous mothers at the Karnes facility were “basically catatonic,” Chaltain said, so traumatized from the separation that other mothers banded together to help take care of their children.
Before Chaltain’s arrival, Elvia had requested a review of her failed interview, as was her right. But with no counsel at that review, “she didn’t know what to do,” and didn’t add the additional context to her asylum claim that would have proven she had a credible fear of torture if she returned to Honduras.
The presiding judge rubber-stamped the asylum officer’s finding, and at that point, Elvia was eligible to be deported immediately. Chaltain filed a request for a re-interview, pointing to the numerous lapses in protocol that led to Elvia’s failure to pass the credible fear interview, but that request was denied.
“She now really doesn’t have any other recourse,” Chaltain said. The only thing currently preventing her deportation has been the series of court orders temporarily halting reunited parents and children from being removed from the country—and hopefully, Chaltain said, her son’s own claim for asylum.
“These children have a right to make their own claims,” Chaltain said. “Because the government screwed this up so royally by separating children from their parents, you now have all of these children who have their own independent asylum claims and torture convention claims separate from their parents.” In many cases, and those claims are even stronger than their parents’.
Asked to explain how it will handle cases like Elvia’s, with a parent who has failed a credible fear interview and a child whose asylum process has not yet begun, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told The Daily Beast that Elvia will be removed with or without her son—a decision she has to make.
“For parents who have a final order of removal, and whose children have not received a final order, it is the parent’s decision whether to return with or without their children,” ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett said. “ICE does not interfere in the parent’s decision to allow the child to remain in the U.S. to pursue his or her own legal claim.”
Chaltain hopes that Elvia and her son will be released into the custody of a sponsor with a notice to appear at removal proceedings in the future, as was the practice before the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Elvia has expressed no interest in returning to Honduras without her son, primarily because her account of her rape and torture is vital to validate her son’s asylum claim.
“Without me,” Elvia said in her declaration, “he cannot explain why it is unsafe for him to return.”
“Releasing her doesn’t mean that she gets any sort of [legal] status,” Chaltain said. “But she has a chance to take advantage of circuit court law that may be helpful to her case.”
After the nightmare of uncertainty Elvia and her son were put through by the Trump administration’s family separation policy—a policy that not even its architects think was a good idea—the least that the federal government can do is “give them the fucking process,” Chaltain said.
As their fates are debated in federal court, Elvia and her son are now being held at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. They are no longer separated, but being reunited hasn’t halted the danger that awaits Elvia back home.
“If she gets sent back to Honduras, she’s probably going to die. It’s as simple as that. It’s not fabricated, it’s not me being dramatic—that’s the reality of the conditions in Honduras,” Chaltain said. “People understandably are so focused on the actual reunification issue, but they don’t understand that that’s just the beginning for people like her.”
Meanwhile, in Honduras, Elvia’s family awaits news from the United States, still in the dark as to why Elvia fled home in the first place. Elvia’s daughter turned five a week ago, while her mother and brother were still in detention.